Judea, an Ideal State of the Greek Philosophers?

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by Neil Godfrey

Bust of Herodotus. 2nd century AD. Roman copy ...
Herodotus.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ancient Greek world appears to have been ignorant of the Jews (or even Israel) in Palestine until around the end of the fourth century. I still recall my high school disappointment when I read the famous work of the Greek “father of history”, Herodotus, only to find not a single mention of biblical Judea even though surrounding peoples were colourfully portrayed in detail. If Herodotus had truly traveled through these regions as we believed at the time (a view that has been questioned in more recent scholarship) what could possibly account for such a total omission of a people whose customs surely differed so starkly from those of their neighbours. Didn’t Herodotus love to seek out and dwell upon the unusual?

A History of Israel from the Ground Up (i.e. from archaeology)

Perhaps that nagging question prepared me to be more open to the arguments of scholars sometimes labeled as the “Copenhagen School” — Thompson, Lemche, Davies in particular at first — than I might otherwise have been. Their thesis is that biblical Israel, the Israel of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the united kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, the rival sibling kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south up to the time of the captivities, first of Assyria and then of Babylon, and finally the story of Jews undergoing a literary and religious revival by the waters of Babylon, all this was a literary fable as much as the stories of Camelot and King Arthur were. That’s oversimplifying it a little, since the stories functioned quite a bit more seriously than as mere entertainment; and there was indeed a historical kingdom of Israel based around Samaria, although the southern kingdom of Judah led from Jerusalem did not really emerge as a significant power until after Israel was deported by the Assyrians. Leading figures from the Judea really were deported to Babylon but the purpose of this deportation, as with all such deportations, was to destroy the old identities of the captives and reestablish them with new ones. So there was no opportunity for a literary or religious revival.  There was no Bible as we know it during any of this time.

The Biblical books were the product of the peoples subsequently deported by the Persians to settle the region of Palestine in order to establish it as an economic and strategic piece of real estate for the Persian empire. This was the colony of Yehud. (If I recall correctly it was for a time part of the Persian satrapy extending across the biblical land of promise from the Nile to the Euphrates.) Fictionalized narratives of this settlement have come down to us in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Scribal schools competed to establish a new narrative and cultural identity for this settlement. The native inhabitants (or “people of the land”) became the godless Canaanites from whom the settlers needed to withdraw in every way. Myths of returning to the land of their fathers to restore the true worship of the god of this land emerged just as they did with other deported populations of which we have some record.

The First Greek Witnesses

Let’s move ahead a little now to the time when we find our first notice of this people among the Greeks. It’s around 300 BCE. The Persian empire has crumbled before the Macedonian phalanxes of Alexander the Great. The old Persian province of Yehud is now under Hellenistic rule.

Teofrasto Ancient greek philosopher and botani...
Theophrastus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theophrastus was the philosophical heir of Aristotle. He is also one of the first to have left us an account of the Jews. Only fragments survive and most is gleaned second hand from what other writers recorded. The following is from Porphyry.

And indeed, says Theophrastus, the Syrians, of whom the Jews constitute a part, also now sacrifice live victims according to their old mode of sacrifice; if one ordered us to sacrifice in the same way we would have recoiled from the entire business. For they are not feasted on the sacrifices, but burning them whole at night and pouring on them honey and wine, they quickly destroy the offering, in order that the all-seeing sun should not look on the terrible thing. And they do it fasting on the intervening days. 

During this whole time, being philosophers by race, they converse with each other about the deity, and at night-time they make observations of the stars, gazing at them and calling on God by prayer. They were the first to institute sacrifices both of other living beings and of themselves; yet they did it by compulsion and not from eagerness for it.

I suspect few us aware of the Bible would be very surprised to find a foreigner singling out an interest in the deity and frequent prayers as collective characteristics of the Jews. The interest in the stars might raise an eyebrow, however, given the Bible’s condemnation of astrology. But a little searching soon reveals that Greek philosophers following Plato considered the study of the heavens as the study of the source of all knowledge of the divine.

Belief in the regularity and perfection of the heavenly order, with a philosophical and religious basis, was a common view throughout the Hellenistic world. . . . [The Greeks took up this idea with utmost enthusiasm] to make it an essential ingredient of their religion and their philosophical thought. We already find it in Pythagoras and late in Plato, his friend Eudoxus of Cnidus and Aristotle; however it was given its greatest significance in the Stoa [where Stoicism originated]. . . . The ordered movement of the stars, especially of the firmament, was regarded as an expression of divine perfection and the stars themselves were divine beings. For Philo the were [“divine souls . . . unadulterated and divine”] (Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, p. 235)

The stars and their movements were in effect considered revelations and proofs of God.

But the question that interests me at this point is “What gave the Jews the reputation of being a race of philosophers?”

$_12Here’s another Greek author and philosopher from around the same time: Hecataeus of Abdera. The following comes to us through Diodorus Siculus:

(1) When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the common people ascribed their troubles to the workings of a divine agency; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practising different rites of religion and sacrifice, their own traditional observances in honour of the gods had fallen into disuse.

(2) Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, . . . . But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judaea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited.

(3) The colony was headed by a man called Moses, outstanding both for his wisdom and for his courage. On taking possession of the land he founded, besides other cities, one that is now the most renowned of all, called Jerusalem. In addition he established the temple that they hold in chief veneration, instituted their forms of worship and ritual, drew up their laws and ordered their political institutions. He also divided them into twelve tribes, since this is regarded as the most perfect number and corresponds to the number of months that make up a year.

(4) But he had no images whatsoever of the gods made for them, being of the opinion that God is not in human form; rather the Heaven that surrounds the earth is alone divine, and rules the universe. The sacrifices that he established differ from those of other nations, as does their way of living, for as a result of their own expulsion from Egypt he introduced an unsocial and intolerant mode of life. He picked out the men of most refinement and with the greatest ability to head the entire nation, and appointed them priests; and he ordained that they should occupy themselves with the temple and the honours and sacrifices offered to their God.

(5) These same men he appointed to be judges in all major disputes, and entrusted to them the guardianship of the laws and customs. For this reason the Jews never have a king, and authority over the people is regularly vested in whichever priest is regarded as superior to his colleagues in wisdom and virtue. They call this man the high priest, and believe that he acts as a messenger to them of God’s commandments.

(6) It is he, we are told, who in their assemblies and other gatherings announces what is ordained, and the Jews are so docile in such matters that straightway they fall to the ground and do reverence to the high priest when he expounds the commandments to them. And at the end of their laws there is even appended the statement:

“These are the words that Moses heard from God and declares unto the Jews.”

Their lawgiver was careful also to make provision for warfare, and required the young men to cultivate manliness, steadfastness, and, generally, the endurance of every hardship.

(7) He led out military expeditions against the neighbouring tribes, and after annexing much land apportioned it out, assigning equal allotments to private citizens and greater ones to the priests, in order that they, by virtue of receiving more ample revenues, might be undistracted and apply themselves continually to the worship of God. The common citizens were forbidden to sell their individual plots, lest there be some who for their own advantage should buy them up, and by oppressing the poorer classes bring on a scarcity of manpower. . . . . 

The Jews never had a king? Was this a bit of ignorance or had the biblical narrative we know so well not yet taken a general hold of the whole community? And what of the land being uninhabited at the time the Israelites entered it? Yet more ignorance or was the myth of Joshua’s conquest yet to form and spread?

A xenophobic reputation? A 2008 article by Katell Berthelot, “Hecataeus of Abdera and Jewish ‘misanthropy’” (Bulletin du CRFJ, #19), argues that although “misanthropy” referred to here by Hecataeus is a negative trait it was not nearly so censorious as it became toward the end of the second century BCE. The Spartans, another race much admired by Athenian and other philosophers, was likewise burdened with something of a xenophobic reputation.

Generally Hecataeus’s portrayal of the Jews is an idealistic one. The rulers are the wisest and godliest of men. Their division into twelve tribes is propitious. They are prepared for war (a positive trait — as it was for Sparta).

The wisdom of God — a God over all else and who is worshiped most truly without images or hint of human form — rules this people.

Josephus is another who preserves some of what Hecataeus wrote about the Jews and singles out his admiration of their willingness to suffer punishments for the sake of keeping their laws.

A nation of philosophers?

I have touched on many points that could be expanded into whole chapters, even books, in the above outline. Trying to find a way to distil so much into a single post is one of the reasons for the delay in getting this one up at last.

So let me come now to one other “little detail” in the back of my mind while reading these Greek accounts of the Jews in the pre-Maccabean period.

In earlier posts I have addressed a few arguments attempting to show that considerable portions of the Old Testament originated with authors imbued with Hellenistic philosophical ideas. Some scholars have even published arguments that the entire Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is modelled upon the Histories by Herodotus. The Genesis narrative of the pre-flood violence and foundings of civilized arts, the flood itself, the patriarchal wanderings, and so forth, appear to be closely connected with Plato’s account of the origins of human civilization and aspects of the myth of Atlantis. (One such post was Genesis Myths Inspired by Plato?)

Another set of similarities with Greek philosophy is found throughout the Pentateuch in the laws of Moses given to Israel. I am unable to track the reference at the moment but I have read commentaries upon a historic reluctance of scholars to bring to the fore and address the discomforting questions that arise when they read Plato’s Laws and inevitably notice the many details in common in the Pentateuch. Plato wrote that the ideal division of a state should be into twelve tribes. He also urged a deep love of law should be instilled into the people; that God should be worshiped as supreme over all and without images; the wisest and godliest of men should rule — righteous and just laws all came from God through his righteous agents, the priests; a healthy distance from foreigners may have some benefits in maintaining the purity of the ideals of the state; citizens should be courageous and prepared for war; land should be equally divided in a way that maintained an inheritance for all; and so forth and much more.

Some of this idea can be found in earlier posts dealing with the early chapters of Philippe Wajdenbaum’s book, Argonauts of the Desert. (It’s late and would take too long for me to find the links. Do a word search.– Although I have not discussed this aspect of Wajdenbaum’s book in any depth yet.)

Is it possible — is it worth exploring the hypothesis — that the Jews were led by Hellenistically educated men (presumably few women would have been involved) who were still engaged in constructing (and/or debating) a new identity for their settlement, with many inspired by the ideals of Greek political philosophy to attempt to establish their idea of a utopian state and culture?

I’ll leave it there for now.

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39 thoughts on “Judea, an Ideal State of the Greek Philosophers?”

  1. Neil, what do you think about the Judahites who fled to Egypt after the 586 BC disaster? We know quite a few did -the rather extraordinary evidence of the Elephantine papyri confirms it. Do you have any hypotheses about how their beliefs differed from those Judahites in Palestine and Akkad during the 6th-3rd centuries BC?

    1. I’m sure you know more than I do about them or the scholarship surrounding their practices and what they indicate about the cult in Judah. Has it been finally established that the Elephantine colony was the result of Jews leaving the kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Babylonian conquest?

      I only know what little I have read about them — that their beliefs and communications with Jerusalem point to a religion that is only broadly approximately like anything we read about in the Bible. My interest in them is linked to what they indicate about the larger picture of the origins of “the Jews” and “Judaism”.

      1. Has it been finally established that the Elephantine colony was the result of Jews leaving the kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Babylonian conquest?

        -Nope, but that is by far the most reasonable hypothesis, given that the Elephantine papyri say that the Elephantine temple existed before Cambyses entered it:
        and that the Judahite population which lived in Judah in the late 7th century BC must have went somewhere during the 6th, and, judging from the books of Jeremiah & 2 Kings, that “somewhere” was Egypt. There is also no evidence from any source of any large-scale movement of Judahites into Egypt before the 6th century BC.

        1. What are the other hypotheses extant that you believe it is superior to? To what extent is the evidence we have what we would expect to find given the hypothesis? What do the archaeological finds tell us about population movements? The last I read (quite some time ago) was that the depopulation in Judah coincided with increases in neighbouring regions. I don’t know how we’d reconcile the theology of Jeremiah and 2 Kings with the evidence from the Elephantine inscriptions and papyri so I presume we’d want to be cautious about the etiological(?) narrative, too – yes? Is the evidence we have what we would expect to find given the hypothesis?

          As you can see I have far more questions than answers and clearly have a lot more reading to catch up on in this area.

          You once, if I recall correctly, said I was out of touch with relatively recent archaeological finds that overthrew the hypotheses re biblical Israel of Thompson, Lemche and co. Can you direct me to that literature?


    2. Nobody can argue that the cult of Yahweh preceded the arrival of the Greeks to the region. Yahweh is an ancient deity who was part of a larger pantheon.

      However, we have no evidence prior to the Hellenistic Era of the monotheistic Yawhism we today call Judaism. The Judeans of Elephantine were clearly polytheistic and the evidence we have the Elephantine colony demonstrates no knowledge of the Torah, Moses, Saul, David or Solomon.

      It is a grave mistake to assume that the Old Testament’s story of Judeans fleeing to Egypt is evidence of the origins of the Elephantine colony. We know that the Persians, like many empires before (and after), employed forced relocation of peoples, often with a myth of their origins.

      And even if the Old Testament story is the explanation for the Judeans’ presence in Egypt, one cannot accept the rest of the Old Testament as unvarnished truth any more than they can believe Scarlet O’Hara was a real person because Atlanta was a real place, Sherman was a real person, and Sherman’s sack of Atlanta was a real event.

      1. I’ve been thinking more about this, too. Given that the biblical account is a justification of the Mosaic Law through Josiah (contra the religious diversity of Israel in the north), one would expect any group leaving Judah to be carrying something of that Mosaic tradition with them. That’s exactly what we don’t find in the Elephantine colony.

  2. The hypothesis of this post is something that I have been exploring for about three years now.

    Here is where I am at currently: (1) monotheistic Yahwism came about due to Hellenistic syncretism during the reign of Ptolemy II, essentially replicating the approach that Ptolemy I took towards the Egyptian Deity Serapis for the Hellenistic colonies of Egypt; (2) the original books of monotheistic Yahwism were compiled in Alexandria and included portions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and what became Joshua (but with Moses as the hero who made it to the promised land); and (3) the Primary History, including the Deuteronomistic History, was compiled in Antioch around 200 BCE during the reign of Antiochus III and included the Samaritan version of Deuteronomy, which identifies Mt. Gerizim as the site of the tabernacle. The upshot of all this is that Platonic-inspired Yahwism did not come into full bloom until around 200 BCE, and that it was a Seleucid innovation, not a Ptolemaic one.

    One of the reasons that I believe the Deuteronomistic History was written around 200 BCE is because the stories of Saul, David and Solomon appear to be based on the lives of Alexandar, Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, respectively. While technically this means the Samuel and Kings could have been written as early as 246 BCE (Ptolemy II’s death), the Seleucids did not have control over Judea until around 200 BCE. Around that same time, the “Samaritan” Temple on Mt. Gerizim was expanded, as was the Hellenistic city nearby. Centralizing control of the cult of Yahweh in Samaria most likely was meant to cement Seleucid control over the region and undermine the power of Ptolemaic loyalists (although many of those were deported to Lydia, perhaps to a Hellenistic colony called Hyrcanus).

    We still aren’t done, as Jerusalem-centered Judaism did not come about until later, as a Ptolemaic loyalist response. Local separatists picked up from there, some time between 175 BCE and 145 BCE. I’m still trying to zero in on things there.

    1. I have not yet caught up with these arguments. Can you direct me to sources — your own, too, if you have anything online or otherwise — re the inspiration of Alexander and the Ptolemies? (I only not very long ago finally caught up with van Seters and his linking of David with the Persian court.)

      1. Neil,

        I am the source of these arguments, although I can point to arguments of Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Thompson, Lemche and Hjelm as supporting them. I have a Word document (with hyperlinks) that supports my “parallel lives” thesis regarding the Hebrew and Hellenistic kings. I sent it to Lemche and Thompson a few months ago, and I am happy to send it to you, too. (Just need an email.) The remainder of what I’ve said has not been shared with anybody, but I’m happy to do so at some point. Let’s walk through the parallel lives first, and see what folks think.


  3. “Is it possible — is it worth exploring the hypothesis — that the Jews were led by Hellenistically educated men (presumably few women would have been involved) who were still engaged in constructing (and/or debating) a new identity for their settlement, with many inspired by the ideals of Greek political philosophy to attempt to establish their idea of a utopian state and culture?”

    Implicit in this statement is an assumption of the ethnic continuity of the Jewish people from a time before the Hellenistic Era to the present day. This assumption is rarely questioned, and certainly Gmirkin and Wajdenbaum rest their hypotheses on it. Thompson is much more careful and rigorous in what he is willing to attempt to explain with the evidence, and he will tell you that ethnic continuity cannot be assumed (but only if you ask; I have not read that statement in his published works).

    There may be another assumption in the statement, which is that the Old Testament originated in Judea, if not Jerusalem proper. The Minimalists recognize there can be a problem with this thesis, depending on the date you ascribe to the original works. Gmirkin believes the Pentateuch was written by Alexandrian Jews. While I believe the original books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were written in Alexandria by scholars of the Museion, I believe that Deuteronomy, Samuel and Kings were written much later and in an area under Seleucid control because (1) to the extent their are ancient royal archives that corroborate certain events in Kings, they were under Seleucid control, and (2) the stories of Samuel and Kings, in many ways, are a polemic against the Ptolemies (the House of David). The natural assumption is, if that’s the case, these books would have been written in Babylon (that was Lemche’s first thought when presented with the hypothesis), but I believe the location was the great library in Antioch, which during Antiochus III’s reign was managed by a scholar trained at Plato’s academy (whereas the peripatetics of Alexandria were disciples of Aristotle’s school). For what it’s worth, I do believe that some books were most certainly written in Jerusalem, e.g., Nehemiah and Chronicles.

    One of the most difficult problems in trying to unwrap this puzzle is that much of the ancient written evidence we have is hearsay within hearsay, fragments of greater works preserved either by Josephus or the Church Fathers in apologetic works, and much of this evidence was tampered with over the intervening millenia. What I have been trying to do is focus on the geopolitical realities of the region during the Hellenistic Era. The eureka moment was when I realized that the Hellenistic cult of Serapis was created to encourage Hellenistic settlement of the Fayum in Egypt. Given some of the telltale Hellenisms in the first four books of the Pentateuch, it seemed logical that the Ptolemies may have pursued a similar agenda by Hellenizing a Judean god, e.g., Yahweh. If that’s the case, and I believe it is, then the population of Judah would have been predominantly of Greek descent by the time Antiochus III conquered the region and centralized the cult in Samaria.

    1. My use of the term “Jews” was a bit of lazy shorthand. Yes, I agree that we have no reason to think of Jews as an ethnic community at this time. I think it was Thompson who suggested that the sudden emergence of “Jews” as such a varied and widespread phenomenon indicates an identity more aligned with philosophical leanings than with ethnicity. I think you may be alluding to that above.

      I am quite open to some of the biblical books being composed in Alexandria. At the same time there was a clear focus on a community in Palestine as some sort of exemplar, yes?

      1. “At the same time there was a clear focus on a community in Palestine as some sort of exemplar, yes?”

        Basically, yes, but I’d put it a little differently. Plato in Laws argued that a colony should honor the local gods and customs. The cult of Serapis ensured that the Hellenistic colonies of the Fayum and Alexandria followed Plato’s advice because the god Osiris-Apis, although Hellenized, remained fundamentally a local Egyptian deity. The choice of Yahweh to create a syncretic (Hellenized) cult, if that is what happened, implicitly identifies the locale of the colony, which would include Palestine.

        I would go further and say that a priest of Yahweh was most certainly involved in the creation of the first books of the Old Testament in Alexandria, if only as a source of information (as Manetho and Berossus appear to have been). We know that Manetho was directly involved in legitimizing the cult of Serapis, so I would not be surprised if a priest of Yahweh served the same function in legitimizing a Hellenized cult of Yahweh.

        If the cult of Serapis is a guide, it is interesting to note that the priests of the cult were mostly, if not exclusively, Egyptian. If the same approach was taken with a syncretic cult of Yahweh, the priests could well have been natively Judean.

          1. Most OT studies folks don’t look to the cult of Serapis at all, and the Minimalists refer to Plato only in passing (Thompson’s “Nomoi” reference). To understand the cult of Serapis, you need to look to Egyptian studies, and about the only time OT scholars stray into that land is when Jewish papyri are involved, although, to be fair, there is a great deal of interest in the time of Ptolemy II and the “long third century;” see here:


            The arguments above are further examples of my attempts to integrate all of the evidence to shed light on what happened during the Hellenistic Era. I’ve been forced to study the history of Athens, Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Seleucid Empire, as well as the origins of the Hebrew language and the Hebrew alphabetic numeral system, among other things. Since most OT scholars, even Minimalists, tend to think in terms of ethnic continuity, they usually don’t imagine that Judaism may have originated as a syncretic, Hellenized cult (although the big guns will admit they can’t rule it out and, by and large, are interested in seeing the theory explored).

            I suppose I can focus on some of these arguments/observations as part of the initial content of my blog, and I’d be happy to give you a preview because I have a lot of source material that I can point you towards to test the thesis.

    2. Scot:

      I believe the original books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were written in Alexandria by scholars of the Museion

      Redacted, or actually originally composed? A great deal of the J text, for instance, clearly reflects an Iron Age provenance. The language it was written in, most basically, would not have been comprehensible in toto even to scholars, much less the audience. I mean, the translation of the Septaguint was made in the same general time and place, for precisely the reason that Hellenized Jews couldn’t read the Hebrew. So if you’re really saying e.g. Genesis was written, what? a couple of generations before it was translated, who was the audience and what was the impetus to translate? Meaning, how did a faux-ancient forgery go from non-existence to a staature withing a Hellenized community such that there was motivation to undertake the translation?

      Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something, but I really think you may be ignoring some pretty salient features of these texts that simply could not have been incorporated (except via redaction) by anybody who lived that late, and not just on linguistic grounds alone: the social and geopolitical world assumed in the narratives had not existed for many centuries and could not have been invented to such accurate detail. Modern scholarship knows things that were the merest wisps of legend by the Hellenistic era, and we can corroborate this knowledge with the texts and compare them in turn with other ANE texts of the same era that also were unknown in Alexandria.

      1. CJ,

        Thanks. Let me see if I can answer your questions. This will probably take a few iterations because the subject matter is so complex.

        “Redacted, or actually originally composed?”

        Composed and compiled. While there were source materials (e.g., Gmirkin’s identification of the use of Manetho and Berossus as sources in the Pentateuch), these materials were used as a basis for telling new stories and were not merely redacted. I consider this original composition as much as many modern Tolkien-inspired fantasy novels are, in fact, new works, regardless of their derivative nature.

        “A great deal of the J text, for instance, clearly reflects an Iron Age provenance. The language it was written in, most basically, would not have been comprehensible in toto even to scholars, much less the audience. ”

        I assume you are referring to the attempt to distinguish between Early Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew? Some scholars don’t accept that distinction and believe that both EBH and LBH were used contemporaneously. While I have spent less time on the linguistics side of the equation, the EBH v. LBH distinction seems driven by the assumption of the relative timing of J, E, D and P, which makes the theory a great example of circular reasoning.

        Another point to make is that, from what we can tell, “Hebrew” (or paleo-Hebrew) was a dead language from about the 6th century until it was revived maybe in the 3rd century BCE. There are scholars who believe that the language was not actually spoken even in the 2nd century BCE but only written. Other scholars question whether it was really a language at all, given the relatively restricted vocabulary.

        One thing I want somebody to explain to me is how the Hebrew of the Pentateuch includes alphabetic numerals, which were foreign to the peoples of Judah before the Exile and during the Persian Period, only arising during the Hellenistic Era.

        “I mean, the translation of the Septaguint was made in the same general time and place, for precisely the reason that Hellenized Jews couldn’t read the Hebrew. So if you’re really saying e.g. Genesis was written, what? a couple of generations before it was translated, who was the audience and what was the impetus to translate? Meaning, how did a faux-ancient forgery go from non-existence to a staature withing a Hellenized community such that there was motivation to undertake the translation?”

        Where did these Hellenized Jews in Alexandria come from? One legend has it that Ptolemy I captured Jerusalem while he was satrap of Egypt and left with 100,000 or 200,000 Jews as slaves. One big problem with that legend is that archaeology shows that Jerusalem had maybe 1,000 to 1,500 inhabitants at the time of Ptolemy I.

        Why couldn’t these Hellenized Jews in Alexandria, if they existed, read Hebrew? The Exile lasted longer than the time period between Ptolemy I’s alleged capture and enslavement of all these folks and Ptolemy II’s translation. We are to believe that they could remember Hebrew throughout both the Captivity and the Persian Period, but suddenly forget within one generation, even though they were only a few hundred miles away from Jerusalem, which was in constant contact with Alexandria given the trade between the cities?

        The worse part of the “translation for the Hellenized Jews who could not read Hebrew” theory is that it is a relatively modern theory, and it carries with it its own bias. The Letter of Aristeas, itself a forgery from the 2nd century BCE, argues that the translation was made so that the Greeks could have the benefit of the wisdom of the Jews. As certain scholars could not accept that Greeks would find any value in what the Jews had to say, they invented their own theory.

        To answer your basic question, my assertion is that certain books of the Primary History were originally written in paleo-Hebrew (Phoenician, actually) during the reign of Ptolemy II, and they were immediately translated into Greek. The intended audience was not Hellenized Jews, but Greeks. The goal was to attract Greek colonists to Judea (Phoenicia and Syria, as the Ptolemies referred to the region generally). As the Ptolemies undertook a similar Hellenization of an Egyptian god to encourage Greek colonization of Egypt, it doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to believe that they did the same with Judea, and the theory is a better explanation of all the evidence we actually have.

        “Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something, but I really think you may be ignoring some pretty salient features of these texts that simply could not have been incorporated (except via redaction) by anybody who lived that late, and not just on linguistic grounds alone: the social and geopolitical world assumed in the narratives had not existed for many centuries and could not have been invented to such accurate detail. Modern scholarship knows things that were the merest wisps of legend by the Hellenistic era, and we can corroborate this knowledge with the texts and compare them in turn with other ANE texts of the same era that also were unknown in Alexandria.”

        Your emphasis on redaction assumes source texts existed and were merely changed. I believe there were a multiplicity of texts that were used as source material, but the effort employed required much more creativity than mere redaction. For example, the Garden of Eden story is actually a normative inversion of the Marduk legend: where knowledge was the gift of the Gods in the Marduk legend, it was God’s curse in the Garden of Eden story. Similarly, many of the priestly laws are normative inversions of Egyptian priestly law. And the story of the birth of Moses was a normative inversion of the legend of Sargon. The reason you use normative inversions is to repel the sensibilities of those who embrace the norms. So, what we have in the Pentateuch (leaving aside Deuteronomy for now) are norms designed to offend Egyptians, Babylonians and the peoples of the Levant. At the same time, we have numerous stories that reflect familiar Hellenistic stories (which meaningful changes, not redactions, here and there). There was a purpose behind the text that was produced, and that purpose (which I argue originally was Hellenistic colonization of the Levant) required a lot more creativity than merely redacting and compiling, and that creativity is amply demonstrated in the later changes to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Joshua that were necessary to incorporate those books with Deuteronomy, Judges, Ruth, Samuel and Kings to produce the very Herodotus-inspired Primary History.

  4. Dio 37.16.5–17.4: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/37*.html#16.5

    (1) original name of old: Palestine (Παλαιστίνῃ)
    (2) alternate new name: Judaea (Ἰουδαία)
    (3) name of the people: Judaeans (Ἰουδαῖοι)
    (4) origin of the people’s name unknown to Dio, i.e. for him the Ἰουδαῖοι were not named after the country, because that name was “[newly] acquired” (ἐπίκτητος), obviously together with the territory
    (5) Ἰουδαῖοι not described as an ethnicity/race, but a collective based on specific customs & observances
    (6) accounts of their god (possibly also those in their bible) unhistorical

    1. The Greek word for “Judeans” (Ἰουδαία) was used in antiquity well before the time of Cassius Dio, although originally to designate area of origin, not necessarily ethnicity and certainly not religion. Shaye Cohen’s book is a pretty good exploration of the use of the term and how its meaning changed over time: http://www.amazon.com/The-Beginnings-Jewishness-Uncertainties-Hellenistic/dp/0520226933

      Most scholars prior to Cohen automatically equated the term Ἰουδαία with its modern meaning of “Jews,” and I believe such retrojection led to the mistaken identification of Hellenistic colonists emigrating to Egypt from Judea as Jews. Although Ptolemaic records identified these “Jews” as “Hellenes,” scholars such as Tcherikover insisted that “Hellenes” meant merely “not Egyptian.”

      As to how the Greeks came to refer to Palestine as Judea, perhaps once they got there they discovered the name given to the area by the people who lived there?

  5. Sorry for commenting on this old post, just came across it. This is really interesting stuff.

    @Neal, you said:
    “Myths of returning to the land of their fathers to restore the true worship of the god of this land emerged just as they did with other deported populations of which we have some record.”

    What examples do you have in mind?

    @Scot Griffin, I knew that Serapis was a god invented in Ptolemy’s era, but I didn’t know that it was done to encourage immigration by Greeks. Do you have any suggestions for reading on that? Also are there other examples besides Serapis?


    1. @Nikos,

      That specific formulation of the theory is mine, although it does find some support in John E. Stambaugh’s Sarapis Under the Early Ptolemies. See pages 93-98, and especially page 94.



      The most common theory is that the Ptolemies created the Hellenized Serapis cult so as to integrate its Greek and Egyptian subjects into a single people, and that the cult ultimately failed to achieve that goal. But it is hard to imagine any early Hellenistic ruler, who believed in the superiority of the Hellenes, pursuing an objective to dilute that which made the Hellenes greater than any other people. This is especially true of Ptolemy I, who was taught by Aristotle (a man who believed in the racial superiority of the Hellenistic peoples). Trying to integrate Greeks and non-Greeks into a unified people is just not how Hellenism actually worked.

      Stambaugh at page 94 notes that the need for a Hellenistic-style god would have been most urgent for Greek immigrants to Alexandria (Serapis was introduced as the patron god of that city). We also know that the cult of Serapis was very successful and spread throughout the Mediterranean region, including other Greek cities and even Rome. (The cult of Serapis lasted into the 4th century CE, when it was rooted out by the Catholic Church).

      The idea that a cult that lasted for almost 700 years and spread throughout the Greco-Roman world was somehow a failure blinks reality and requires a different, more realistic theory of what the actual goal was for creating the cult. I believe the answer lies in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, who noted that the proper creation and administration of a colony would necessarily include the worship of local gods. The Hellenized image of Serapis clearly served this role, and it seems reasonable to conclude that this was intentional.

      Kat Mueller’s Settlements of the Ptolemies: City Foundations and New Settlement in the Hellenistic World provides some additional information about who the cult of Serapis was administered that I find pertinent to the Hellenized cult of Yahweh we find in Old Testament. It turns out that all the priests of the cult of Serapis were Egyptian (while all the followers appeared to be Hellenes). The Ptolemies were very good about sharing power with the local priesthoods in Egypt, a model that could have been easily adapted to other areas ruled by the Ptolemies, e.g., Judea.


      I probably have not explained the theory in enough detail (or well), but the whole point of Alexander’s conquests was to establish Hellenistic colonies. The Macedonian generals who inherited Alexander’s empire had to compete for settlers to work the newly acquired land, but the settlers, who were common folk, were god-fearing and extremely xenophobic. It would have been imperative to demonstrate that what the settlers were coming to would not be so very different from what they would be leaving behind. This explains the story of how the Serapis cult was introduced and Hecataeus of Abdera’s description of Moses’ founding of Jerusalem and giving of the laws (a story that follows a common motif for the settlement of Greek colonies). Yes, the settlers would be going to a strange and distant land, but the gods and the myths and the legends were familiar.

      If there are examples beyond the syncretic cults of Serapis and Yahweh, you would have to look for them in the Ptolemaic kingdom. The Seleucids were much more traditional in how they founded Hellenistic colonies and did not seem to follow the teachings of Plato and Aristotle.

        1. @Nikos,

          Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve told Neil that I’ve parked a blog, and my first substantive post (on the parallels between the lives of Saul, David and Solomon, on the one hand, and Alexander, Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, on the other) is basically ready to go. The issue for me right now is trying to frame the discussion that the blog seeks to produce. “Mythicism” is a touchy subject when it comes to Christianity, and I’m injecting a “mythicist” element into Old Testament studies that goes far beyond the “minimalist” view. To me, the problem is in how best to learn from the Minimalists’ struggles so that I can build a bridge to the acceptance of even greater skepticism of the origins of the text. This is not intended, however, to denigrate the Jewish faith or the faith of any of the adherents to the Abrahamic religions. I believe that mankind will ultimately conclude that both the Abrahamic religions and modern science sprang from the same intellectual tradition: Greek philosophy (Plato and Aristotle specifically).

          The name of my blog, if I ever get around to investing time in it (which I think I should be able to do within a 3-6 months) is “Plato’s Athena,” which is veiled a reference to Judaism. The name is a bit clunky, but it demonstrates the irony I find in the current tension between science and religion. They’re not hereditary enemies, they’re kissing cousins.

          1. Looking forward to it!

            I have also been thinking along similar general lines lately, but I disagree with your last sentence. Just because science (and rationalism) and modern monotheistic religions have common origins it doesn’t mean that they are not inherently inimical to each other.

            Science, pretty much in the modern sense of the word, developed for the first (and probably the last) time during the Hellenistic era, based of course in the tradition of the classical and pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, but going beyond that. Alexander’s conquests were probably an essential component because it brought the Greek thought in direct contact with the technology of more “advanced” civilizations, and in general expanded its horizons. The scientists of the Hellenistic era though went beyond Aristotle and Plato rejecting the components of their philosophy that are irrelevant and even harmful to the scientific outlook. They rejected, for example, the “teleological” and “essentialist” components of the “classical” philosophers; they weren’t interested in understanding the “essence” or the “true purpose” of things, instead they built “mathematical models” that described the way the world works, not paying much attention to “metaphysical questions”. With the Roman conquests this scientific tradition was all but destroyed and was not fully recovered until the beginning of the last century really. A very interesting book on this is Lucio Russo’s “The Forgotten Revolution”.

            The “rejected” components, so to speak, didn’t go away though. They persisted and combined with the mysticism of “indigenous” people, again thanks to the close contact that Big Alex’s conquests brought. This resulted in all the mystery cults etc that also flourished during the Hellenistic era, and unfortunately unlike science, persisted pretty much down to our era. A reaction to Greek colonialism, in some ways eerily reminiscent of our own era, also contributed to this. For example, when the Egyptians took the upper hand in their own country, after Ptolemy VIII the Potbelly (Physcon) purged the Greek elite from Alexandria all scientific activity in that city ceased for two centuries or more. During that time the local elites started propagating the myth that all the scientific knowledge that the greeks had advanced was really based on secret knowledge that the gods had revealed to Hermes Trismegistus, and the Egyptian priests had preserved down the ages, the colonialists didn’t really bring anything new.

            So, IMO, even though they have the same historical roots science and religion, IMO, were never “kissing cousins”.

            1. Hi Richard— I am sorry your comment was locked in moderation for some reason. I hope to have more opportunity soon to return to blogging.

              Scot has prepared a table setting out in some detail his case for major portions of the historical books of the Bible being based on events among the Hellenistic kingdoms. I look forward to reading his notes in more depth before resuming discussions. Meanwhile I’m reading another work that I have also promised to comment on . . . .

              I also particularly look forward to catching up with the info on the page you have linked to. Thanks.

            2. Thanks for this link. I am thoroughly enjoying it. Do you know how mainstream/fringe the assertions and conclusions are among archeologists and scholars in the minimalist community?

              1. I must say, the article (if that’s the correct description), by Dr M. D. Magee (that I linked to) is fascinating. I’ve just skimmed through it, and my head is spinning with so much info!

                Since I’m not a speed reader (and I don’t have photographic memory), I’m hoping others here could take the time to go through it, and distill his conclusions. Has anyone here heard of him?

                Richard G.

              2. Interesting background. He Jesus stuff seems more fringe. I am wondering how much of the above is compilation of mainstream minimalism and how much is his own speculation added on. Some of it is in Finkelstein, et. al. But the idea of the initial Hebrew texts being written by Zoroastrians at the behest of Cyrus to create a priest class in Judah is not something I have seen elsewhere. I have never read about the destruction of original texts second century or the idea that the septuagint was not only a translation, but a primary source. But the document/literary history of the Hebrew texts is not I have looked at much at all (beyond reading Who Wrote the Bible). If this guy is write, there is no there there at all. What we consider the old testament is a product of the Maccabean era, that they were the first Jewish state, and it was all cobbled together to give them a history and identity. I am skeptical, but 15 years ago, I was skeptical of Doherty and now it all seems plausible.

              3. Hi Lowen,

                Yes, I think your take on Magee is similar to my own. His section on dating ANE history is intriguing. I personally don’t know enough about that so I share your question re: ” how mainstream/fringe the assertions and conclusions are among archeologists and scholars in the minimalist community?”

                He also seems to be a proponent of adelphiasophism (which I have never heard of, and question how fringe that also is):

                Richard G.

  6. I covered the views of Davies and Thompson in some detail in Origins of the Israel of the Bible’s narrative (1). Scot may have at hand more details of the particular example Thompson was referring to. The Babylonian king (Narbonidas?) decreed the restoration of a temple near Babylon and ordered workers from a number of regions (as far away as from Egypt and where the god would have meant little) to undertake the work. The decree was couched in the message of restoration and piety.

    In the biblical history we read of the king of Assyria declaring that he was offering the Judeans a happy migration to a new land of plenty. The Judeans didn’t seem too impressed by the offer.

    (No problem commenting on any old post here.)

  7. Given that a convinced atomist like Epicurus was checking out of the world in 270 BC right when the “chosen people” were being chosen by somebody for a social engineering experiment there should of been at least a few godless ‘materialists’ among them. They’ve always been around in every age for example the Abbasid Caliphs knew them as https://iranicaonline.org/articles/dahri-ar Possibility that things could of gone another way.

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